My idea of a summer holiday is lying on a sunbed, gazing out to sea with a good book and possibly something cold and delicious to drink at hand. But this September I opted for something completely different – an adventure hiking 115km through North-West Spain on the Camino de Santiago. And what an adventure it turned out to be!
Despite wild storms, less than ideal terrain and a sometimes lacklustre community spirit, the gorgeous scenery and sense of achievement made it a memorable and cherished experience..
Santiago (Saint James) is the 3rd largest pilgrim destination in Christendom (after Jerusalem & Rome) but distinguishes itself as most of those journeying there do so on foot. There are 7 established routes, ‘caminos’, and the Camino Frances starting in the Pyrenees is the most popular.
My reasons for going were not religious: partly a challenge, partly to improve my fitness levels, partly because I thought it would be a fun holiday with time for a little bit of contemplation thrown in. But as a middle-aged woman who spends a great deal of time working on a computer, my fitness levels aren’t great – so my starting point was Sarria, a mere 115km distance from Santiago, compared with nearly 500km if you start in The Pyrenees.
I wasn’t alone, around 70% of pilgrims on the French Way start from here. However, most of them complete the journey in 5 days, and I confess to doing it in 9 (a Camino-lite). There is also a thriving business in companies that transport your bag every day, so I was a Camino Super-lite!
I’m a newbie to Nordic Walking and only bought my poles a week before I went. Prior to that my Bath NW instructor Lindsay Atkin had been lending me hers for our weekly Friday morning walks in Rainbow Woods. Back in January when I arranged this trip, I just wanted to go on a walking holiday. Six months later having been introduced to Nordic Walking and gotten the bug, I was determined to take my poles with me.
I looked into booking through an organised group but none of them could guarantee exactly where you’d stay any night. For most people this wouldn’t be a problem, but if you are a fusspot with slight control-freak tendencies, you’d probably want to choose for yourself and have a nice room for the night guaranteed. So I opted to go solo – which in hindsight was probably a mistake. More on that later…
I flew from the UK to Santiago. It seemed the obvious choice, but It hadn’t occurred to me that beginning my journey in the very place I was ending it, might take away some of the thrill & expectation that most of my fellow pilgrims enjoyed on their Camino. So, here I was in this stunning city, surrounded by crowds celebrating the end of their journeys. They’d all walked here, and I’d just flown in on a budget Vueling flight!
I was booked into a lovely little boutique hotel in the old quarter next to the Central Market, and had an early, sleepless night. Perhaps over-excited or anxious about what I’d let myself in for.
The next morning a two-hour bus journey took me to Sarria. I’d been expecting lots of convivial bonhomie on the coach, assuming we were all there for one reason. And yes we were. However, it was calm and quiet, with my fellow passengers more interested in engaging with their mobile phones than they were with each other.
I was sitting next to a young Spanish boy aged about 9-10, who looked absolutely terrified of this foreign woman alongside him!
Given its status as the most popular starting point on the Camino I was rather disappointed with Sarria. I might mention here that many moons ago I spent 5 years living in Madrid. Whilst there I had the most amazing time and was privileged to be invited all over the country by Spanish friends. Spain has an incredible number of stunningly beautiful and totally charming towns & villages. Sarria definitely isn’t one of them. It has little of architectural interest and no heart (most Spanish towns at the very least have a central plaza).
It didn’t seem to care that tens of thousands of people arrive from all over the world to start their Camino there. ‘Hello!’ I felt like shouting (not very pilgrim-like). There were three religious buildings in the town, all closed, only opening for mass later after all the pilgrims had left.
My hotel was probably the smartest one in town (okay, I wasn’t getting the authentic pilgrim experience, but this was doubling up as my hard-earned annual holiday) and I retired that night reading news alerts on my phone about expected severe storms and floods nationwide. Apparently even the Mayor of Madrid was advising everyone to stay indoors – absolutely unheard of in the party capital of Spain. Yikes.
Fortunately, whilst the rest of the country battled with unprecedented bad weather, all remained balmy up in the NW quarter (usually the wettest part of Spain) and setting off on my first morning was very exciting. Going down to the hotel lobby there was a tremendous buzz. Lots of animated groups, for most of whom this would also be their first day. There was a sea of backpacks and suitcases ready to be picked up by couriers, an 8am deadline for guaranteed delivery at your next stop that afternoon.
The majority of them would have been walking to Portomarín, a distance of 29k and the next stop of great historical significance on the Camino. As I was doing less than half of that, I decided to have a later start to let the crowds dissipate. It can get very busy in the morning rush-hour from 8am to 9.30am (earlier in the hotter summer months).
What I hadn’t considered was that this would mean me commencing my journey entirely on my own. ME, walking through shaded woodlands without a soul within eyeshot, earshot or phoneshot! I get nervous walking on my own in Rainbow Woods for goodness sake, what was I doing?
This was the first time in my life that I had been truly alone with nature. I’d like to say that it was wonderfully calming and restorative. It certainly became so over the course of my ten day journey, as it was quite a common occurrence. But to be honest, that first morning I was rather anxious.
(NB. Given this is being read by fellow Nordic walkers, the Camino constantly changes from dirt paths to hard surfaces, and given the number of pilgrims using poles (mainly trekking) the clickety-clackety of carbon spikes is frowned upon. So I’d invested in a pair of LEKI ‘Silent’ Spike Pads, as they’re meant to be suitable for all terrain.
On day one I proudly marched out of the hotel and the poles went skating over the pavement. No grip at all and for Nordic Walking purposes, completely useless! So they were replaced with normal rubber paws, and never used again. As most airlines won’t permit poles as carry-on luggage, I’d bought a pair of collapsible ones to fit in my suitcase. However, LEKI don’t make these with paws attached, so throughout my journey I was constantly taking them off and on, often covered in mud and cow-pats, and had to fiddle around getting them at the correct angle. Grrr.)
Most of my walk that first morning and the next few days was past cornfields, through woods and along paths lined with fallen apples, acorns & chestnuts. It was beautiful countryside, not dissimilar to swathes of Wiltshire or Devon. Later on in my journey it was dominated by eucalyptus forests, which smell heavenly and look dramatic from a distance (they grow very tall), but not so attractive close up as they shred bark and look quite straggly.
My first night was spent in a tiny hamlet – Morgade – staying in a delightful country inn. I arrived exhausted and was looking forward to a jolly evening having dinner and joining in hearty conversation with my fellow guests. Having dumped my suitcase (as far away from the bed as possible – bed bugs are an issue on the Camino too) I freshened up and went down to the charming conservatory dining room.
There were about ten tables, all with couples looking slightly glum and either eating in silence or whispering quietly to each other. Oh dear. Thank goodness for Paco, the amazing front-of-house guy who looked after us all, telling jokes all the way. Maybe everyone was just too tired to talk that night? I for one was exhausted.
By day two I was getting into the swing of it – packing up, taking my bag downstairs by 8am, and setting off on a new day. All mornings were wonderful, but my favourite one was leaving Portomarin. I descended from town with hordes of other pilgrims, through thick mist to the river crossing. Some young groups in the procession were singing, others chanting.
Once over the bridge, we climbed through a thick oak forest and 20 mins later came out into bright blue skies. This was the best day. Met up with fellow ‘peregrinos’ (pilgrims) walking at my pace and planning to arrive at Santiago the same time as me. That’s the best thing – it doesn’t take long to spot them and then your paths keep criss-crossing. Seeing a warm and welcoming face or two at the next rest-stop was a definite highlight.
And so my Camino continued. Not quite Eat, Pray, Love, more Eat, Walk, Sleep. I came to the conclusion that I am beyond redemption. No great Spiritual Awakening I’m afraid, no moment like Paul had on road to Damascus. I spent most of my time wondering where I’d stop for lunch and REALLY looking forward to a midday Estrella Galicia, the local beer.
The days had their rhythm: the early morning starts, heading off sometimes completely on my own, and at others part of a troop. Where else in the world does everyone walk in one direction? In ten days I only saw two people walking towards me (probably locals).
It took me a while to get to grips with the dynamics of the Camino. If you spend the night in one of the main established ‘pit stops’, then the early mornings will be pretty busy. In lesser known establishments you’d start the day practically on your own, only to be overtaken by the masses several hours later.
Our route was shared by cyclists who have to cover 200km if they want a ‘Compostela’ (Certificate) from the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago. At times they were quite disruptive – especially when the paths were really narrow – as they swarmed past us in their lycra with barely a glance sideways. So much for calm contemplation on the Camino!
The days blended into each other until day nine. I arrived in Lavacolla, the literal translation being ‘wash your butt’ (in medieval times pilgrims would clean up in the river before the final stretch into Santiago). Fortunately, times have changed and I’d booked into Pazo Xan Xordo, an enchanting old manor with a luxurious bathroom and plenty of hot running water.
After a blissful night, I set off on my last morning, very excited. Without exception, anyone on my route would be arriving at the cathedral later. Before embarking on my journey I’d seen photos of an enormous sculpture of 2 pilgrims looking out from The Mount of Joy (Monte de Gozo) – their very first glimpse of the cathedral towers barely 2km away. Think how those who walk 500+ km must feel when they get here!
Approaching the end of my little-Camino, even I understood why this was so significant, and was really looking forward to experiencing it. The route was by now getting really busy, a constant stream. I imagined reaching the sculpture and being overwhelmed by the crowds gathered around, taking photos.
So imagine my surprise when no one was there! I really cherished that moment and spent a while with those two larger-than-life bronze pilgrims feeling really moved – and full of joy. After a while I was joined by a couple of young German girls who took my photo.
I thought I’d feel a bit daft walking the last few kilometres with my poles through the built-up suburbs of Santiago. Holding them behind you at a roughly 45˚ angle sets you apart. But after 115km, they’d become a part of me. They’d helped me get here and there was no way I was going without them now.
And so I proceeded, feeling elated as I walked down from Monte de Gozo into Santiago. After so much glorious countryside and wonderful woodland walks, I hadn’t been looking forward to trudging along pavements, crossing highways and making numerous stops for traffic. But I felt so elated, that none of that bothered me. And when I finally approached the cathedral and heard the bagpipe player who heralds ones entrance to the main square in front of it, I teared up. It’s not what I expected. But there I was, overcome with emotion.
And here, more than anywhere, it really hit me. I would have LOVED to share that moment of arrival/triumph. It seemed like everyone else in the plaza was celebrating in their groups. Of course, there would have been others like me, but right then I felt like I was the only one there on my own (don’t feel sorry for me here, it was my choice!)
Wiping away my tears of happiness/pride/relief, I headed off to the Pilgrim’s Office. I’d been warned of long queues, but having registered on a computer terminal in the lobby I was whisked within moments to a registration desk. I showed my Pilgrim’s Passport which had to be stamped at least twice every day for the last 100km to be entitled to a Compostela. This proved that I’d walked the walk and done the required distance. Ideally, all the ‘sellos’ (stamps) would have been issued by religious establishments, but as they were all sadly closed, the majority of mine were from bars & restaurants!
Three euros later and I was the proud bearer of my Compostela. Ones name is automatically translated by their IT system into its Latin equivalent. I don’t think there were many Karens around in Ancient Rome, so I became ‘Catharinam.’ Most of the pilgrims I met along the route said they’d frame theirs and hang in their loos. I’m still deciding what to do with mine!
Fortunately my first evening back in Santiago (this time holding my head very high, as I’d walked here too) I’d been invited to join some fellow peregrinosfor a celebratory dinner and it was absolutely wonderful. Here we all were, proud, tired, united. A very special night.
It was lovely to end my journey on such a high note, but if I were to walk the Camino again it would most definitely not be alone.
Some may do it because they’re grieving, or for many other reasons they need quiet time for reflection. But if you’re expecting camaraderie as I was (hazy memories of interrailing in my twenties, staying at fun youth hostels) you may end up disappointed.
Most people I met along the way stuck to their groups or couple. Always a ‘Buen Camino’ as you’re passing, maybe a friendly chat over a pit stop during the day, but always that uncertainty of dining solo. So in the end that’s what my experience came down to – with all the wonderful things I did see and do, and the memories made, there was just one thing I hadn’t quite considered – dining alone in restaurants totally sucks!
Finally, and on a positive note, my Nordic poles are now so much a part of my walking life that I feel rather lost whenever I don’t use them. They’re not very practical for traipsing round Bath city centre (popping in to M&S for example), but otherwise I now take them everywhere!
Karen Sanders Young
You can find our favourite Nordic walking poles here and if you’re looking for our advice on best walking kit here’s our recommendations: